Confessing murder

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In the 1840s, the English botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker received a letter from his close friend and colleague Charles Darwin which contained Darwin's first known confession to anyone other than his wife that he was seriously considering the idea that biological organisms change over time. In confessing to Hooker his growing belief in evolution, Darwin said that it felt like he was confessing a murder. Given the extremely controversial nature of evolutionary thinking in 19th century England, Darwin's reluctance to share his emerging ideas is understandable. But how times change. Today, more than 150 years later, it is those who dissent from Darwin's theory of natural selection who are put in the position of feeling like they are confessing a murder. I should know, for I am one of them.

Since the development of the so-called modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1940s and 1950s, Darwinian natural selection has been enshrined as the accepted understanding of evolution by the scientific establishment, and this theory has been clothed in a rhetoric of triumph so extreme that anyone who would dare dissent from it is automatically branded as an anti-intellectual religious fanatic. Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett has said that Darwin deserves a prize for coming up with the best idea that anyone has ever had—better than even Newton or Einstein. He has also said (tongue in cheek, I assume) that parents who undermine their children's faith in Darwinian evolution should be charged with child abuse. The great Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr has said that the modern evolutionary synthesis has achieved its great status through irrefutable proofs and the sweeping away of all rival theories.

As a scholar in the humanities, I have been trained to be suspicious of these kinds of grand narratives. Broad sweeping narratives of triumph almost always oversimplify history for the purpose of supporting a particular ideological agenda. And the triumphant narrative of Darwinian evolution appears to be no exception. So I am going to confess murder (metaphorically, of course) by challenging the historical veracity of the popular narrative of evolutionary theory's historical development at the first Luther College Religion Forum of the 2015-16 academic year on Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. in the Recital Hall of the Center for Faith and Life. My presentation is titled, "Resistance to Change in a Theory of Change: Religion, Science, and Evolutionary Theory's Failure to Evolve."

Despite the rhetoric of triumph that has come to clothe the modern evolutionary synthesis, quite a number of biologists have been making calls for a fundamental rethinking of evolutionary theory on the grounds that the established theory cannot fully account for all aspects of life's diversity as we observe it. But these calls have gone largely unheeded. What accounts for this resistance to re-evaluate a theory that itself embodies the very idea of change and impermanence? This reluctance seems to be due to fears that a revised theory will not square so easily with an understanding of evolution as a natural and undirected process, a possibility that would undermine evolution's status as science by blurring the lines between science and religion. This ideologically motivated resistance to a fundamental rethinking of evolutionary theory may actually be hampering our ability to really answer the question that exercised Darwin so long ago: how did the great diversity of life come about?

Does arguing a thesis like this make me a religious zealot? Daniel Dennett would probably say so. But any who know me and who know how deeply committed I am to the critical study of religion would recognize how wrong Dennett would be. The idea that one must be either a full supporter of established evolutionary theory or a religious zealot is simply a rhetorical ploy to cover up the uncomfortable fact that the evidentiary basis of evolutionary theory is not nearly so strong as the supporters of this theory would like us to believe it is. And besides, I am not arguing against the idea of evolution itself. I am not a creationist. I accept the evidence that organisms have evolved into their current forms over billions of years. It is the mechanism driving that evolutionary process that I am questioning.

The grand narrative of the founding of the modern evolutionary synthesis tells us that the seminal work of the synthesis was Theodosius Dobzhansky's 1937 publication "Genetics and the Origin of Species." Dobzhansky is credited with bringing together the emerging field of population genetics with the study of organisms in the wild to show how the theoretical speculations about how natural selection works were consistent with what biologists observe in natural populations. In this grand synthesis, Dobzhansky is credited with setting up natural selection as the established theory of evolutionary mechanism. But Dobzhansky's own words don't quite fit with this narrative.

On page eight of "Genetics and the Origin of Species" he wrote:

…among the present generation no informed person entertains any doubt of the validity of the evolution theory in the sense that evolution has occurred, and yet nobody is audacious enough to believe himself in possession of the knowledge of the actual mechanisms of evolution…

I don't believe anyone today should be so audacious either.

Robert F. Shedinger

Robert F. Shedinger

Robert Shedinger is a professor of religion at Luther College. He is the author of several books, including the 2015 "Jesus and Jihad," "Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion" and "Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety."

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Comments

  • September 28 2015 at 9:21 pm
    Bill Rohan
    I often wonder why overwhelming evidence for evolution is not sufficient for those who can find the most insufficient detail or the least likely possibility of a contraindication to be the basis of their oppositional views.
  • September 28 2015 at 11:18 pm
    Carlos Marquez

       Science does not "prove" anything au contraire every experiment done using evolution wants to render it false; both theist & atheist scientist got up this morning in search of fame & fortune by knocking down evolution a la Darwin so far Darwin has won for the last 150 years- an impressive record!

    Methinks that Mr Shedinger wants to have his own brand of science by removing methodological naturalism and replacing it with some sort of mystic supernatural intelligence notions. That may be how religion works but not science. And of course the "supernatural"intelligence must be that in accord to Shedinger's particular beliefs in his particular cult.

    Anyone can refute evolution-it's easy- all that has to be done is to do the field & lab work and show a better explanation within the constrains of the scientific method -LIKE EVERYONE ELSE DOES- There are no free passes , no changing rules to fit your world view all that subjectivity must be removed that is why we have peer -review papers.

    Also there is no conspiracy from the scientific world community against folks that anti-evolution is their methods -or lack thereof- and the inclusion of the supernatural into a discipline that seeks natural explanations to phenomena.

    Mr. Shedinger : evolution is a fact, and Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is -at least for now- the best game in town period. From vaccines to agriculture to medicine and even computing , it just works.  

     

     

     

  • September 29 2015 at 9:19 am
    Robert Shedinger

    Thanks for the comments. It is unfortunate that you were not able to hear my full presentation. I am not questioning the idea of evolution itself. The evidence for this is very compelling to all but the most staunch creationists, which I am not. But I do question whether "Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is the best game in town" in terms of explaining how evolution has occurred. I'm sure you could all provide me with much evidence that evolution has occurred. But what is the overwhelming evidence that natural selection is the primary mechanism driving evolution? Please enlighten me.

  • September 29 2015 at 3:26 pm
    Dana Chapin

    See "Your Inner Fish" by Neil Shubin on PBS. It is about the long lineage of your imperfectly evolved human body. Or the work of some bloody incompetent designer if you cleave to that idea. If there is "a better game in town" then please enlighten us on what that might be. Those men and women who actually make a study of biology and evolution have not discovered a better explanation. Perhaps you have a revelation to share? Quoting someone from 1937 is quite a reach. There been a lot of discoveries and refinements from 1937 to 2015. At least try to catch up if you are going to presume to comment on a topic where your beliefs necessarily undercut your understanding. Willful blindness simply won't do if you are an honest man. Assuming, of course, your beliefs value honesty.

  • October 7 2015 at 6:43 pm
    Michael Dorigan (Class of 1985)
    Why is it that every time a hand goes up requesting the scientific evidence supporting the theory of human evolution, adherents choose to obfuscate, or, worse, attack the questioner as if he were the Neanderthal that the followers of Darwin et al. so wish to link to Homo sapiens? Why not answer the questions? Educate us. Instead we get Bill Rohan (above, in the Comments) who asserts “overwhelming evidence,” but offers none, and rejects so-called “contraindication” as valuable evidence that is so important to the scientific method and the possibility for rejection of hypotheses via contradiction. At times it appears that our friends in the life sciences have drifted far away from the science they claim to pursue, finding comfort in casual observation like that found in those t-shirts illustrating a reptile evolving into a walking man in five easy steps. From what I can understand in Carlos Marquez’s comments that follow Mr. Rohan’s, scientific support may be found in “methodological naturalism.” I have no idea what this is, but at least now I am being educated. I have the means to begin my own search. I don’t hold out much hope, given how Mr. Marquez embarrasses himself by stating that to “refute evolution” one must find a better explanation. Wrong, Mr. Marquez. As Karl Popper so artfully explained in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, science requires a testable hypothesis formulated so that there exists some chance of rejection. Hence, the assertion that “evolution is fact,” Mr. Marquez, is, in fact, not a proper proof. Finally, when Dana Chapin is prepared to offer a sprinkling of the “discoveries and refinements” in the science of human evolution since 1937, I promise to make an honest effort to review them. Until then, I will continue to believe that, yes, evolution appears to be the most plausible explanation for how we all arrived here, just like Professor Shedinger does, or so it seems to me from his note and comment. I just won’t take it as gospel. PS: For next week: Who initiated the Big Bang?
  • October 7 2015 at 9:20 pm
    Robert Shedinger
    Thanks for your comments, Michael. I couldn't agree more. I'm still waiting for just one piece of evidence.

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